Late-Night Laughs is Deadline’s weekly look at the business of jokes after dark. We focus on the biggest topics in the world of late-night, the people who make these shows tick and the moments that go viral. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with tips or suggestions.
This week, we look at on-screen diversity in the genre, speak with Desus & Mero about being picked up for a third season, take a look at how late-night hosts dealt with the screamo dumpster fire that was the presidential debate, and profile The Amber Ruffin Show writer Shantira Jackson.
Is Late-Night TV Becoming More Diverse?
The question of on-screen diversity (we’ll tackle the topic of off-screen diversity in a separate column) is not a new topic. But it came into focus this week with the news that Saturday Night Live writer Sam Jay scored a weekly late-night talk show on HBO, as well as the launch of The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock (as well as the recent Wilmore debut).
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Jay, who joined the writing staff at SNL in October 2017, will improve the diversity of HBO’s late-night slate, which currently features Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. This is the network that was the home to The Chris Rock Show more than 20 years ago.
Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have performed at comedy clubs with Jay, whose first hourlong comedy special, 3 in the Morning, was released on Netflix in August. Desus told Deadline that giving her a show is a “start” towards equal representation. “You’ve got to give people chances to even be on the network,” he said. “Shout out to the network for even making an attempt to [increase] their diversity movements.”
One late-night writer echoed this, saying it was a “win for all of us,” and another added that whether or not you liked Jay’s style of comedy, the “visibility factor is huge.”
Insecure exec producer Prentice Penny, who will run the untitled show, said Jay would “challenge the culture” and “challenge all of us to think different and be better.”
That’s a pretty good way to think of the future of late-night.
Are things improving across the board on screen? Lilly Singh became the first woman of color to host a network late-night show when A Little Late debuted on NBC in September 2019.
“I think late-night hosts have been predominantly white males and I think they’ve had that space for a while. And now there needs to be that space for other groups of people to put their defenses down and talk about things and address these issues better,” Singh told Deadline.
The Amber Ruffin Show is also a breath of fresh air on Peacock, alongside Wilmore.
Late Night with Seth Meyers writer Ruffin, who made headlines this summer with a series of monologues about her experiences with police on the NBC show, said that people are becoming more interested in different perspectives. “Now, people’s understandings have widened and their focuses have shifted. Hopefully, that translates into late-night television,” she said.
Ruffin, Jay and Wilmore, who previously hosted The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, are not the only Black voices to currently have a prominent late-night slot. Desus & Nice, which airs twice a week on Showtime, was recently picked up for a third season, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah celebrated its fifth birthday this week, and Comedy Central is lining up a new show with Charlamagne Tha God.
However, other than A Little Late with Lilly Singh, which airs at 1:30 a.m., the rest of these current examples are on cable or streaming. You have to assume that the next time a vacancy comes up on one of the main shows on CBS, NBC or ABC, diverse candidates would be top of the list to replace a Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Meyers.
Jimmy Kimmel Live!, has, over the summer, done well to make sure its roster of guest hosts over Kimmel’s break were not just a parade of white men. Kerry Washington, John Legend, Sarah Cooper, Lil Rel Howery, Jason Derulo, Anthony Anderson and Samuel L. Jackson were among this group.
It’s also not just race. Gender is still an issue. Other than Singh, Samantha Bee, who hosts TBS’ weekly show Full Frontal, is the only woman fronting a major late-night show.
Robin Thede was the first Black woman to be head writer of a late-night show on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore before she went on to host The Rundown with Robin Thede on BET. She told Deadline that with the cancellation of her show, as well as for the likes of Chelsea Handler, Busy Philipps, Michelle Wolf and Sarah Silverman, it seems that “when one woman gets a late-night show, another one loses it.”
“My show had decent ratings, close to a million viewers a week, but not enough for what BET wanted. They wanted Daily Show ratings, which I don’t know how you would get that on BET,” she said. “There’s been a bunch of women who have just come and gone. And so, the numbers just stay, in the handful of women, in late night. But I just think you have to give equal chance, for shows to succeed and I think a lot of these don’t get enough time. That’s the tough thing.”
As Desus Nice sums up, “It’s not moving fast enough but at least it’s starting.”
Hosts Respond To Debate “Chaos”
I’m sure you watched Tuesday night’s presidential debate and even if you didn’t, you could probably hear Donald Trump interrupting Joe Biden. Many of the hosts offered near real-time analysis of the commercial-free cacophony.
Stephen Colbert called it a “swirling chaos of creation.” “I have seen Shiva dancing the destruction, wielding his trident carving great gouts out of the universe. The sky at once both red and blue and black until all that remained was a starless void and the hollow husk once known as Chris Wallace,” he joked.
Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon both took umbrage with the president refusing to condemn white supremacy, while the former also took issue with Trump’s assertion that Joe Biden plays more golf than he does (“Phil Mickelson doesn’t play more golf than [Trump] does“), while the latter pointed out that “you know it was a rough debate when the guy who told the president to ‘shut up’ was seen as the classy candidate.”
Finally, Trevor Noah took a quick hot take that “no human being could be ready for this.”
What If Desus And Mero Moderated The Debate?
This week’s presidential debate, as described by CNN anchor Jake Tapper, was a “hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck” with his colleague Dana Bash calling it a “shitshow.”
Now, imagine for a second if Chris Wallace had been replaced by Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez, otherwise known as Desus Nice and The Kid Mero.
“The whole time you were watching the debate, you were thinking damn, what if Desus & Mero were moderating this, so we have to give people something similar to that [on our show],” Desus told Deadline.
“We’d barbecue that shit,” added Mero.
The pair were recently picked up by Showtime for a third season to air in 2021. Season 2 of their show was set to run to the end of October, but the pair tell Deadline that there is flexibility if anything “wild” happens such as the President of the United States of America refusing to concede an election.
“That was the first presidential debate I’ve ever seen where the whole time I was fearing that one person was actually going to stab the other person. If that’s the case, we’re definitely going to have to cover it,” said Desus. “I think there’s an option for us to record a special or extend the season. I know there is flexibility between us and Showtime so it’s a possibility. If needed, we could do more episodes. We’ll see what happens. We’ve got that sweet knowledge that Season 3 is coming.”
The pair have adapted well to filming their show, which airs on Sunday and Thursday, from their individual homes. They say that they feel like they’ve “hit their groove,” helped by some technological advancements. Desus said, “It was one of the few shows that got better during the pandemic and it felt like towards the end of the season we really hit our stride, so we felt pretty strongly that we were going to get picked up, but shout out to Showtime for picking us up, we really appreciate it.”
The pair are now discussing when they will return to the studio. The studio that they, in fact, purchased just before the pandemic happened. The main issue for them is that the Manhattan space is close to Penn Station, so even though New York is quieter than it is under normal circumstances, it’s still a busy area and there are concerns about common entrances.
“If people stay inside and wash their hands and do all of the necessary things for us to be able to do that [we’ll return to the studio]. Our show functions in the studio, out of the studio, on a park bench, on a bus, it doesn’t matter, it’s the two of us that makes the show go. Whatever. For me personally, I’ve got four kids in the crib, so I’d love to go back to the studio. But is it necessary for the show to keep up the quality? I don’t think so,” said Mero.
They will be going into Season 3 as newly minted members of the New York Times Bestsellers List after their book God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons From The Bronx made the ranking. “It’s wild,” said Mero. “From 2013 to 2020, the trajectory is out of control. Once you’re a New York Times bestseller, no one can take that away from us. It’s like you’ve got your Ph.D.”
Desus, who previously worked at the New York Public Library, added, “The fact that we started on Twitter, writing for free, and now we’ve got a book. That makes it even sweeter.”
Rising Star: ‘The Amber Ruffin Show’s Shantira Jackson
Deadline is shining a spotlight on some of the most exciting writers to rise up on the late-night beat. Who are the scribes that will go on to run shows, host, perform and create the the hottest comedies on TV and film?
On that note … congratulations to Nedaa Sweiss, who previously wrote on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Late Late Show with James Corden, for getting her single-camera comedy Real People into development at ABC.
This week’s focus is on The Amber Ruffin Show’s Shantira Jackson.
Jackson is one of three writers for the Late Night with Seth Meyers writer’s new show on Peacock. While her first television break was as writer on BET’s sketch/variety show 50 Central, she says her real break was when she worked on a cruise ship doing sketch. “We did 11 shows a week for three and a half months. Up until then I did all my comedy for free to barely sold-out crowds, and then all of a sudden I was getting paid to do comedy to sold-out crowds every night, sometimes three shows a night. I didn’t have to have three other side jobs. My only job was to do comedy and it was a dream come true,” she told Deadline.
Before working with Ruffin, Jackson wrote for E!’s Busy Tonight starring Busy Philipps, which she said helped with volume as they did 104 episodes in eight months.
She calls working on The Amber Ruffin Show the “most fun ever.”
“Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel are the best people to work for,” she said. “They are two bad bitches who know exactly what they’re doing and exactly what they want. I love a show with a clear vision and clear direction. A lot of writers are just at the mercy of the showrunner and if the showrunner has no vision there is so much time wasted. Jenny and Amber do not waste my time and I love that. The icing on the cake is that I don’t have to code switch any of my jokes or references. If I want to write about Jodeci’s leather outfits in 1994 I don’t have to tell Amber who Jodeci is. If I bring up some gay shit Jenny is going to be like, “Yeah I get it.” I do not spend my time explaining things to straight white people and that is a gift from God, especially in 2020.”
Jackson added that seeing Ruffin as the first Black woman to ever write on a network late-night show was a big inspiration. Similarly, Christina Anthony, who plays Aunt Denise on ABC’s Mixed-ish, was an influence. “I first saw her in a sketch show at The Second City in 2009 when I visited Chicago for a week. She was the only Black woman I saw performing sketch that entire week and she was so amazing. She held the entire audience in the palm of her hand and I decided then and there to move to Chicago and do whatever it took to be just like her. I packed up everything and moved from Florida six months later,” she said.
She enjoys the topicality of late-night — “I love a hot take” — but admits that the worst thing is having to write about President Trump. “It sucks to write about an awful white supremacist all the time but someone has got to tell the truth and it might as well be me. I’m excited to see what kind of fun late-night will get into after he’s gone,” she said.
Elsewhere, Jackson was a consulting producer and writer on Peacock’s reboot of Saved By the Bell, where she was similarly working for Tracey Wigfield, “another bad bitch who has a clear vision and does not waste our time.”
What does she want to do in future? “I never really thought about hosting late-night much but with Amber as a mentor I know that I could. She makes you feel like you can do anything. Overall, I do hope that we get to a place where there can be three Black women named Amber all hosting late-night shows at the same time,” she said. “As far as my personal ambitions, I want that Adam Sandler life. I want to make whatever I want with my friends and I want it greenlit yesterday. And even if it bombs, I want to keep getting money to try and do it again. Me and Dewayne Perkins would be perfect for a buddy heist movie.”
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